SEOUL, South Korea — Every Friday, Junichi Fukuda leaves his apartment in Tokyo at 2:30 p.m. to make the 4:10 p.m. flight to Seoul’s Gimpo International Airport. From there he heads to a biotech lab at the edge of the city, where he picks up a bouncy black pug by the name of Momotan. He takes the 5-month-old puppy to an apartment he has rented nearby and spends the rest of the weekend playing with her. On Monday morning, he drops her off begins the eight-hour commute back home.
Fukuda, 55, has been doing this since May and will continue until November, when his puppy will be old enough to pass through Japanese customs and come home.
This may seem like a lot of work to see an animal, but “Momo” is no ordinary dog, and Fukuda has already invested a ton of money in getting her this far.
“If she were to reject me because she’s not used to seeing me, that would really hurt me,” Fukuda says through a translator. “So that’s why I think it’s very important to visit every weekend.”
The truth is that Momo is a clone: a googly eyed, heartwarming breakthrough.
Tech Insider flew to South Korea to report on Sooam Biotech, the lab that produced Momotan.
We learned that cloning dogs is surprisingly easy — if you have $US100,000 to spare.
In Fukuda’s case, he was willing to spend that and more to create a genetic replica of Momoko, a dog who saw him through a divorce and gave him lots of love in her 16 years of life.
“She was the best pet in the world for me,” says Fukuda, who runs a television commercial production company in Tokyo. “The reason I was able to work hard and become more successful was because I was together with Momoko, that was how much I loved her.”
Fukuda worked with Sooam to take a cell sample of the dog just weeks before she died late last year, and three months later, his clone was ready. His eyes widen while comparing his old and new dogs. Momotan, he says, “acts exactly the same as Momoko, but I understand that she is a different dog.”
Not only is Sooam the world’s leader in commercial dog cloning, but it is also making radical advances in genetics. The insights gained in genetically engineering dogs could unlock advances in human medicine, resurrect extinct species, and more.
Inside the clone factory
When Fukuda walks into the care room where Momotan is kept, it’s madness at a puppy-size scale.
Several breeds — Cocker spaniel, Labrador, pug, Boston terrier — hop up at the sight of him, tails wagging, mouths yapping. The animals here are waiting out their quarantine periods before they’re sent to their owners in Japan, South Korea, England, Brazil, or the US.
Momotan stands on her hind legs, shivering with excitement at the sight of her master.
Contrary to the unease that the word “clone” tends to summon, these little beasts aren’t science-fiction horrors; they’re the kind of animals you spent your childhood begging mum to let you bring home.
“These puppies don’t know they are clones,” explains David Kim, a bespectacled and soft-spoken Sooam biologist who is showing us around the lab.
Somewhere out there — probably deceased — are the donor dogs that gave these animals their genetic material. With a little bit of science, their genes have found new life.
Sooam says it can clone any dog, regardless of age, size, or breed. It says about one out of three cloned embryos will develop into a healthy puppy. Though institutions like Sooam and its peers are not transparent with their success rates, it’s reasonable to say Sooam is the most efficient cloning lab in the world.
To date, Sooam has cloned more than 600 dogs. At any given time, 40 to 50 of them are housed there in care rooms.
Below Momotan’s room is the infant-care room, where you’ll see tiny puppy clones beside surrogate mothers.
Surrogates don’t have to be the same breed as the clones they carry to term, so you’ll see some incongruous pairings, like these black-and-white puppies nursing from a brown mutt.
Now, it’s true that pet-cloning is a niche market. There are only so many Simon Cowells in the world ready to spend $US100,000 to get a dog that may have a totally different personality from the original dog’s.
Indeed, that is why some people think the whole operation is sketchy. Beth Shapiro, a biologist at University of California-Santa Cruz who wrote “How to Clone a Mammoth,” says what Sooam does is “kind of predatory.”
“They’re preying on people’s heartfelt and sincere love for a pet to give them a genetic clone as if it’s the same thing, but it’s not,” she says.
Less controversial is the cloning of genetically gifted working dogs, which is a source of millions of dollars in revenue for Sooam every year. The lab has been doing this for years: In 2009, it cloned Trakr, a search-and-rescue German shepherd who purportedly pulled the last survivor out of the wreckage from the 9/11 attack in New York.
Recently, the lab made nine clones of a working dog from the Seoul SWAT team (they’re the black-and-white pups shown above), which will soon be sent to the police force to be groomed to fight crime.
How to clone your dog
The first obstacle to cloning your dog is that $US100,000 cost. The second is getting the right kind of cells.
It’s easier if your dog is still alive, in which case you just take it to the vet to get a biopsy sample, an 8-millimetre piece of skin from the abdomen, or about half the width of a penny. Then you pack those samples into an ice-pack-filled plastic-foam box and mail the box to Sooam.
You can clone a dog that has been dead for fewer than five days, too, as long as you wrap its body in wet towels and place it in a refrigerator, which keeps it from drying out before getting to the vet. If the dog is dead, Sooam asks that you send as many skin samples as possible so that the lab has a better chance of finding living cells.
Once the samples get through Korean customs, which can take up to three days, Sooam’s biologists can finally get to work. The process they do perhaps better than anywhere else in the world is called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). A somatic cell is any cell that isn’t a reproductive cell like a sperm or an egg; in this case, it is the skin cell taken from the biopsy.
The biologists sterilize the sample, isolate the cells they want, and put them in a growth medium. One to two weeks later they have the cells necessary for the cloning process.
Then it’s time for the most controversial part. Sooam operates on a pair of dogs rented from a lab-animal provider: an egg donor and a surrogate mother. These dogs are used only once by Sooam before they are returned for whatever else life holds for a lab-rental dog.
A surgery is happening when we visit Sooam, as there is just about every day.
Kim, the Sooam biologist, leads us through a set of lab doors to the audience chambers of the operating room. A Labrador-size dog is splayed out on the operating table, arms and paws out wide, comatose before the operation.
Dr. Woosuk Hwang comes in next with about half a dozen clinicians. The controversial leader of Sooam (more on him later), he leads the operation like a veteran quarterback methodically moving his team down the field, explaining what he is doing at every step.
First up is making an incision with a pen laser, sending the unforgettable scent of burnt dog flesh into the room. Then surgeons pull out the dog’s pink ovaries to flush out the eggs.
On the other table rests another splayed dog. This is the surrogate — a cloned embryo will grow inside her. I watch as Hwang and his team nimbly insert an embryo into the animal.
“Hopefully, we can get a cloned puppy after 61 days,” Hwang says matter-of-factly and without translation.
These operations happen five to 20 times a day at Sooam. Hwang has a saying that the days of the week are “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Friday, and Friday” — meaning everybody comes to work every day. As it was explained to me, the dogs, eggs, and embryos don’t know it’s the weekend, so that’s no excuse for taking off work.
One floor up, in a library-quiet lab — the kind where you have to don a blue jumpsuit and get blasted by air to remove any lingering dust or other loose particles before you can walk in before you can walk in — a biologist will place a petri dish with the oocytes under a microscope attached to what looks like an old-school arcade cabinet. Using two joysticks, he will guide a hypersensitive pipette to puncture the egg and pull out the nucleus so it no longer has any genetic material.
The biologists will take a cell from the donor dog and insert it into that “enucleated” egg. The egg will then be placed into a machine called an Electro Cell Manipulator, which zaps it with electricity to make the membranes of the donor cell and the egg more porous, allowing them to fuse.
And voila: It’s a cloned embryo, made up of genetic material exclusively from the original dog.
Thirty days later, Sooam will be able to verify the surrogate’s pregnancy, which the company says has about a 40% success rate. If all goes well, then after another 30 days the clone will be born.
This is what the bleeding edge of biology looks like, and even though few advocates of pet adoption would endorse the practice, it’s impressive.
But how did Sooam develop this technology, and what’s coming next?
The truth is this is much bigger than dogs, and that much is obvious when you look closer at the controversial genius at the center of the lab: Dr. Woosuk Hwang.
The past and future of cloning
Hwang first made headlines in 1999 when his team at Seoul National University (SNU) cloned two cows. He promptly promised that the next animal would be a tiger — once native to Korea but wiped out under Japanese colonial rule.
But that was just the start for the radical veterinarian.
In February 2004, Hwang reported in the journal Science that his team had extracted stem cells from a cloned human embryo — a finding some called a “medical holy grail.” Since stem cells can become any cell in the body, they could have revolutionary applications, like curing Alzheimer’s or helping people with spinal-cord injuries walk again.
In August 2005, his team cloned the first dog, an Afghan who would be known as Snuppy, as in SNU and puppy. She was the only healthy birth coming from implanting 1,095 cloned embryos into 123 dogs. “The frisky copycat canine has the same floppy ears as his 3-year-old genetic father, whose ear provided the skin cell from which Snuppy was cloned,” The Telegraph UK reported.
The announcement was widely covered in the global media, with at least one bioethicist wondering aloud whether the dog cloning was a “dry run” for human cloning — after all, what we do with dogs could be what we do with kids. But Hwang insisted that Snuppy was part of a larger path toward cloning being applied to medicine.
“The dog has characteristics similar to human beings,” Hwang said in a 2005 interview. “Some of their diseases are almost the same as human diseases.” Dog clones, he said, could therefore “be very valuable in finding technologies useful for curing human diseases.
“This is our main research call.”
The veterinarian had become a rock-star scientist in Korea in a way unimaginable in the US, save for when Albert Einstein was at Princeton. Fans stopped him in the street, asking for his autograph. Korean Airlines offered him free first-class seats for 10 years.
Korea even released a stamp in his honour in 2005. It showed the silhouette of a man standing up out of a wheelchair, leaping, and finally hugging a woman — a symbol of the promise of Hwang’s therapeutic stem cells.
“I want to be remembered in history as a pure scientist,” Hwang said at the time. “I want this technology applied to the whole of mankind.”
But everything came crashing down by the end of 2005.
A former collaborator, angered by seeing Hwang promise a handicapped boy that he would walk again, tipped off a “60 Minutes”-style investigative news program in Korea called “PD Su-Cheop.” That November, a show ran that accused Hwang of making “ethical breaches” in the way he found egg donors; a second show said he had doctored research results.
In a news conference broadcast on all of Korea’s major television networks, Hwang announced his resignation from Seoul National University.
The university came to a damning conclusion in its own formal investigation that December: “The data in the 2005 Science paper cannot be some error from a simple mistake, but can only be seen as a deliberate fabrication to make it look like 11 stem-cell lines using results from just two. This kind of error is a grave act that damages the foundation of science.”
Yet even as his reputation collapsed, Hwang drew lots of support: Advertisers pulled their spots from “PD Su-Cheop,” forcing the program off the air. More than 700 Korean women signed up to donate their eggs to his research. According to “Dog Inc.” author John Woestendiek, one supporter even set himself on fire to protest “what he saw as Hwang’s persecution.”
It was in 2006, during this time of crisis, that Hwang founded Sooam, with financial support from private donors. About 20 of his former colleagues from SNU followed him to Sooam, according to Woestendiek, and Hwang also pulled in top geneticists from university labs around the world.
In 2009, Hwang was “convicted of fabricating data, misusing research funds, and trading illegally in human eggs” and received a two-year suspended prison term, but he never went to jail.
Today many scientists refuse to forgive Hwang. University of Pennsylvania geneticist John Gearhart was an editor at Science when the publication accepted the doctored research, and he took Hwang’s actions as an affront to science itself. He told Tech Insider that what Hwang did “was the worst thing that a scientist could do — not only in falsifying data but in coercing people who were part of the team, for example, to donate their eggs.
“The guy, to me,” he added, “was an absolute scoundrel of the worst sort.”
University of Connecticut biologist Cindy Tian, who has edited two of Hwang’s recent papers for the journal Plos One, maintains that Hwang is contributing to science in a positive way. “I do accept whatever was found — he probably has had some data that were not completely supported by scientific evidence,” Tian tells Tech Insider. “I didn’t lose faith. I think that 99% of him that’s a nice person and scientist, and 1% that is overheated the pressure to produce, to be successful in a throat-cutting field.”
Through it all, Hwang has continued doing research, except now he’s doing it at Sooam. While Sooam makes headlines and derives income from its work cloning dogs, the lab continues to do genetic research in many areas. To date, it has published 47 scientific papers in international journals and acquired nine registered international patents.
And Hwang is as ambitious as ever.
In 2011, he had another canine reveal for the world. As reported in a follow-up paper in the journal Reproduction, Fertility and Development, Sooam took genetic material from coyotes and fused it with the eggs of domestic dogs. To do that, the lab implanted 320 of those interspecies embryos into 22 surrogate domestic dogs, leading to six pregnancies and, finally, eight cloned coyotes. The research was sponsored by Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds Seoul.
Those eight pups, promptly donated to zoos, provided a powerful case study: The somatic-cell-nuclear-transfer technique wasn’t limited to animals of the same species. A lab could take the genetic material from a rarer species — the coyote, in this case — and insert it into the egg of a more readily available one, like the domestic dog, using essentially the same technique that Sooam used to bring Momotan and 600 other cloned dogs into the world.
Like a maturing startup, Sooam would take a technology platform it mastered and expand into other ventures.
Sooam says using cloning to repopulate endangered canine species such as Ethiopian wolves, the American red wolf, and the Lycaon, or African wild dog, is a relatively near-term project. Only 6,000 of the pointed-ear Lycaon are left in the world, and Sooam has already tried the interspecies cloning method with them, though none of the pregnancies have been successful.
Repopulation also has commercial and agricultural applications. The greatest commercial potential, Sooam says, is probably in cattle. Foot-and-mouth disease decimated Korea’s cattle population in 2010,when nearly 500,000 animals were culled. As a result, the local government is giving Sooam funding to use cloning to help repopulate the Hanwoo beef line, the Korean equivalent of Japan’s Kobe or Wagyu.
Hwang’s lab has also moved into medical applications.
Sooam is working on turning cows into “bioreactors.” Through genetic modification, the company’s scientists are manipulating cow genes in such a way that they express useful proteins in their milk. The lab has a team of 10 researchers trying to figure out how to get cows to produce erythropoietin hormones in their milk, which induce the production of red blood cells and are used to treat anemia and other blood diseases. So instead of having to painstakingly and expensively synthesise that hormone in the lab, it could be isolated from the milk.
“A cow produces 15,000 to 20,000 litres of milk every year,” says Insung Hwang, a biomedical engineer by training who has worked at Sooam since 2010 (no relation to Dr. Woosuk Hwang). “If you can produce proteins that pharmaceutical companies cannot produce in mass, then being able to purify that milk or drink that milk has a lot of commercial purposes.”
Sooam is also participating in two of the hot trends in genetic engineering: “disease models” and “xenotransplantation.”
A disease model is an animal that is genetically engineered to be predisposed to a certain human disease. If an animal is engineered to get Alzheimer’s, for instance, it can be used in pharmaceutical research targeting that disease. And while biologists hold that veterinary medicine and human medicine are really one field, “translationality” dictates how applicable a finding derived from one animal is to human life. Mice, as you may imagine, aren’t the most “translational” of animals, given their tiny size, while large mammals like pigs are more translational.
To date, Sooam has produced a range of disease models. It has engineered dogs with Alzheimer’s, Type 1 diabetes, and Type 2 diabetes, as well as pigs with diabetes.
It has also created a “xenotransplantation” model for pigs — meaning organs grown in pigs could be transferred to humans. This is another medical holy grail: If, through genetic engineering, scientists could create a pig whose heart wouldn’t be rejected by a human host, then we could build human organ factories in the same way we mass-produce bacon.
The demand is already here: According to the FDA, 10 people die every day in the US while on the waiting list for organ transplants.
Other labs may be ahead of Sooam in that regard: Harvard’s George Church tells Tech Insider that his lab is making hundreds of changes to the pig genome to make organs suitable for transplantation to humans. And in 2013, a Chinese team successfully transplanted a liver from a transgenic pig to an ape.
But the biggest application for interspecies SCNT is straight out of science fiction: de-extinction of the mammoth, last seen alive 3,600 years ago.
The coyote clones showed that high-quality genetic material from one animal is enough to create a clone with a closely related relative. The mammoth has one such relative in the Asian elephant.
As Insung Hwang told Tech Insider, the coyote clones made a lot of news in Russia.
So in 2012, Sooam partnered with Russia’s North-Eastern Federal University of the Sakha Republic to begin searching for a mammoth sample fit for cloning. This is the equivalent of finding a nucleus-size needle in a continent-scale haystack, as the sample can’t just be the hair or blood of a well-preserved animal. It has to well-preserved enough to hold up to the same cloning process Sooam uses to replicate dogs. If that sample is found, then Sooam could “bring the mammoth back,” though it would be partly Asian elephant because of how the embryo is fused in SCNT.
Every summer, Sooam biologists go to Siberia, deeper and deeper into the Arctic Circle, looking for a mammoth sample that could hold up to cloning.
“The point is to find something that’s better than anything we’ve found before,” In-sung Hwang says. “That’s why we go on expeditions every year. That’s why we try to improve our techniques of preserving the tissues during transportation — we even built a lab in Yakust to really shorten that time of transporting samples from Russia to Korea.”
Soaom just hasn’t collected enough data to say with any certainty that they won’t find a sample, he insists. Not counting a field surveying trip, Sooam has gone on just two full-fledged research expeditions. Somewhere up at the top of the world, that perfect mammoth might just be resting. If Sooam can locate it and bring the species back to life, the lab would make history — Dr. Woosuk Hwang would be a hero again.
Bringing species back from the brink of extinction, bringing others back from the dead, turning animals into bioreactors, growing human-ready organs in livestock, and perhaps one day cloning humans for those “holy grail” stem cells — none of this would be possible if not for labs like Sooam.
And none of that would be possible, at least for Sooam, if not for the expertise and income brought from cloning those hundreds of puppies.
Momo is just the start.